Tracing the origins of rockets

Tracing the origins of rockets

It is a known fact that Tipu Sultan fought relentlessly against the British just like his father Hyder Ali. His military campaigns and combats speak about his strong generalship during this time. These were conducted at different places across the vast geo-political region of South India. The time witnessed battles both on land and sea.

During this time, Tipu had also organised a naval force. After the third Anglo-Mysore War (1789 – 1792), Tipu began to concentate on strengthening the naval force. His maritime force contributed immensely to the expansion of trade and commerce in the transoceanic region. He also heavily relied on the port of Mangalore to resist the British naval force in the Arabian Sea.

His navy, interestingly, had battleships and large frigates. Further, the time’s art of warfare also provides information about the rockets being used by Tipu’s army. Professor B Sheik Ali, an eminent historian, refers to rocket technology as an important development during Tipu’s time.

There is not much information available about this. Though one can find information about these rockets in the notes of  British administrator Mark Wilks, it will not help one in reconstructing it. Similarly Lord Valentia, a British traveller and Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a physician who visited Mysore state after the fall of Srirangapatana in 1799 do not provide any valuable information. While in India, Buchanan-Hamilton made significant contributions as a geographer, zoologist, and botanist. However, Buchanan-Hamilton refers to iron smiths and foundries in his notes.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the former President of India and scientist, first wrote about Tipu’s rockets in his autobiography, Wings of Fire. In the book, he said, “The development of Indian rockets in the twentieth century can be seen as a revival of the eighteenth-century dream of Tipu Sultan. When Tipu sultan was killed, the British captured more than 700 rockets and subsystems of 900 rockets in the battle of Turukhanahally in 1799. His army had 27 brigades, called kushoons, and each brigade had a company of rocket men, called jourks.”

Since then, scholars and history enthusiasts have taken a lot of interest to know more. During the research, references to the use of firearms during the medieval period were found. They were crude in nature and if thrown at fixed targets, did not cause much harm. Tipu’s rockets might have originated from this base and  gradually developed into improvised ones.

With the arrival of the Portuguese and developments in the field of metallurgy, canons came to occupy a prominent place in the army. Though canons were used by the army, Tipu must have thought of using a new method to threaten the enemies. Hence, he felt the need for rockets to be introduced. Accordingly, rockets began to re-emerge after the conclusion of the second Anglo-Mysore War (1780–1784).

Of prime importance
Tipu made use of indigenous techniques that were employed by blacksmiths to produce the rockets and used gunners to fill gunpowder or any other powder which produced both light and sound. Sometimes, hard bamboo poles were used
to sustain the weight of the metal cylinder that contained a highly inflammable
powder, which was most probably a mixture of gunpowder and other highly-inflammable materials.

During this time, the use of gunpowder increased. As a result, there were many workshops that churned out gunpowder on large scale. There are references about the existence of such workshops in places such as Srirangapattana, Bangalore, Chitteldroog and Haidarnagar. Colloquially, they were known as maddina mane.

The victory of Mysore army against the British at many places during the peak of the Second Anglo-Mysore War increased the scope and importance of rockets. By then, there had been a lot of advancement in the production and use of rockets. As a result, the battalion in charge of rockets had the strategic and logistic support of gunners in the army.

Tipu is said to have increased the number of people in the rocket corps in his army. Rockets were used extensively during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1798 – 1799). After the fall of Srirangapatana, some rockets were said to have been taken to England. The reasons were many. One among them was the curiosity to know more about the indigenous technology.

Dr H M Siddhana Gowdar, who was formerly with the Department of Archaeology and Museums, has studied some of the rockets kept in the Government Museum, Bengaluru. Thanks to his desire to study artefacts, description of some of the rockets are available. Some of them were found in a private farmland and are now kept in a museum in Shivamogga.

In one of his works, Dr Kalam pointed out the evolution of these rockets. There are arguments that the engineers, who were in the French army, helped Tipu by providing the technical know-how.

Earlier, some of these engineers had helped in the construction and strengthening of forts. However, with Dr Kalam denying the French connection, it upheld the qualities of indigenous technology. After a look at two of Tipu’s rockets
displayed in Rotunda Museum at Woolwich, UK, he concluded saying that it was the first use of military powered rockets anywhere in the world.

With his observation, Tipu’s rockets came to occupy the centre stage of
discussion once again, particularly among technologists and military strategists. It is said that the British were impressed by the rockets that Tipu’s army used.

Accordingly, after much improvisation and technical skills, the English used similar rockets against the French during the first two decades of the 19th century.

The interesting facts about the rockets of Tipu do reveal the use of indigenous technology in his time. The production of these rockets provided employment opportunities to ironsmiths, workers in foundries, bamboo and gunpowder industries.

Because of these rockets, innovations and experiments were also made in the production of gunpowder. As a result of new rockets, combat forces supported by ancillary units was floated in the army of Tipu Sultan.

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